The proposed extension of the MTA Red Line subway to the Westside was the subject of “The Realpolitik of Rail Politics,” a panel discussion on February 15 at the Westside Urban Forum.
The panelists were Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, former Santa Monica Mayor Dennis Zane (who now heads the Subway to the Sea Coalition), and Jaime de la Vega, Los Angeles Deputy Mayor for Transportation.
Zane spoke of the obvious need for a rapid transit system to serve the congested Westside area. “The subway is the highest capacity option,” he explained. “A subway from the sea to downtown would carry twice as many people [as the bus] in less than half the time.”
Zane said that there would be, of necessity, “a coming together of a larger community” to support such a project and that financial support would come from voters passing funding measures. “We need $50-60 billion over the next few years. The voters are the only place we can go to get that kind of money.”
Zev Yaroslavsky took a less optimistic view regarding costs. Noting that the MTA has estimated the cost of the subway at about $300 million per mile to build, he said it would cost “$1.3 billion to get the line as far as Fairfax and Wilshire.”
“There is no question that we [public officials] support extending the subway,” he added. “But to do that, we need to do several things.”
For one thing, Yaroslavsky pointed out, the region would have to reorganize its priorities. Currently, the MTA is prioritizing funding for other transit alternatives (such as the extension to the Gold Line, and the now-under-construction Phase One of the Expo Light Rail line). And polls show that voters support the idea of public transit but don’t like tax increases to pay for the funding.
Yaroslavsky emphasized that to “sell” a long-term project like a subway, funding would have to be “project specific…you can’t sell a tax package for the Wilshire subway in Claremont.”
De la Vega agreed that the delay in building a subway has been strictly a financial problem. He pointed out that “other cities’ systems were built over many decades. We’re not even at the 20-year mark of our transit.”
He noted that the Bush Administration has cut back on funding for mass transit. “Obviously the administration in the White House will affect the transit agenda.”
De la Vega also observed that the current transit projects have been or are being built on existing rights-of-way, but after they are finished, Los Angeles will have run out of land for light rail type projects. “The [future] system must be aerial or a subway,” he concluded.
The idea of obtaining funds through a 1/2 cent sales tax increase (an idea proposed for the November 2008 election ballot) met with dim support from Zane, who noted that residents of places like the San Fernando Valley could not be expected to vote for a sales tax to fund a subway on the Westside. But when Yaroslavsky asked those in attendance if they would vote for the tax increase to fund the subway, most hands in the room shot up.
An audience member suggested a tax increment on Wilshire Boulevard (because building the subway would increase value of surrounding real estate). Yaroslavsky said that this is an idea that politicians have discussed and that the State Legislature is looking into.
Ultimately, it seemed that with many ideas circulating, the Subway to the Sea will happen – but it probably won’t be happening for many years yet.